Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/Science in Politics




MARCH, 1885.


THE most noteworthy feature of our modern civilization, and the one which distinguishes it from all the civilizations of the past, is its growing dependence upon scientific methods. This is manifested in every department of life, and in every line of thought; it is evident in all arts and industries; and in a multitude of ways it affects government. As modes of living change, the statutory regulation of affairs changes also; as the public thought broadens, methods of administration become broader; as science multiplies the resources of mankind, and brings the nations closer together, legislation recognizes the new condition of the world, and enters upon fields undreamed of a century ago. To-day, every civilized government invokes the aid of science to protect it from enemies, to increase public wealth, and to solve great economic problems; and both science and the state necessarily react upon each other.

The moment we examine closely our own national administration, we find an amazing development in certain lines of scientific industry. Nearly every executive department either has scientific experts regularly connected with it, or employs such experts occasionally for the conduct of important investigations. The work they do is not only "practical," as seen from the most utilitarian point of view, it is also broadly scientific in the highest sense of the term; and it represents in the clearest way the growth of the national intelligence. Some of the investigations relate to the perfecting of national defenses; some to obtaining a better knowledge of the national domain; some to the protection of men and animals against pestilence; and others to the prevention or exposure of certain kinds of fraud. A bare list of the scientific questions with which an intelligent government has to deal would almost fill a volume; for present purposes, the merest summary must suffice.

Beginning with the defensive branches of our public service, we find that both the army and navy have much to demand of science. At West Point and Annapolis, at public expense, the cadets are taught the elements of science; and these elements, with certain limitations, are afterward professionally applied. In the Ordnance Corps, at the Torpedo Station, etc., men of science are actively engaged upon problems which involve both applications of known facts and explorations into the unknown; and upon the results of their experiments and studies the safety of the nation may depend. The army engineers have to deal with many other scientific questions, such as relate to the building of fortifications, the strength of materials, and so forth; and during times of peace they have also charge of river and harbor improvements throughout the land. These improvements, as at Hell Gate or along the Mississippi, involve applications of rigidly scientific methods, and require familiarity with the latest instrumental improvements. Allied to this work is that of the Hydrographic Office, which perfects the knowledge of our harbors; thus aiding navigation, and at the same time furnishing data which may be available for purposes of defense. The army and navy both maintain strong medical corps; and here, apart from the mere treatment of wounds or diseases, much useful work relating to medical science is done. The nature of an epidemic is investigated, the water-supply of a fort examined, the sanitary condition of a ship regulated, medical statistics accumulated, and so on. In the navy, compasses have to be studied with reference to the magnetic character of their surroundings on shipboard; and an observatory, famous among the observatories of the world, is maintained. Here are found the data necessary for navigation, standard time is furnished, chronometers are rated, and the highest investigations in pure astronomy are carried forward. Finally, both army and navy call upon chemical science to protect them against frauds. Supplies are purchased, either in foods or medicines, iron for ordnance, paints and varnishes for ship-yards, clothing for men, etc.; and the question whether the articles provided are of proper quality is constantly being raised. So analyses are made; and for this purpose each branch of the service maintains laboratories, and chemists are kept continually at work.

Attached to the army, and yet having no definite relations to military work, we find the Weather Service. This fairly represents a class of organizations which protect, not the nation as such, but rather the industries of the people. It warns the ship-owner of a coming storm, or cautions the fruit-grower or sugar-planter against a cold wave, and so assists in making industry surer of a fair return. A similar purpose is fulfilled by the Lighthouse Board, which, attached to the Treasury Department, attends to the proper illumination of our coasts and rivers. One research of Joseph Henry's upon the oils used for lighthouse lamps saved the Government hundreds of thousands of dollars; and, to-day, the application of the electric light to coast illumination calls for the most careful consideration of scientific experts. The Department of Agriculture also does much in the application of scientific research to the assistance of great industries. It investigates the wasting of our forests, determines the conditions favorable to crops, conducts experiments upon sorghum, studies the plagues which ravage our flocks and herds, and seeks for methods of exterminating insect pests, such as the locust, the cotton-worm, or the potato-beetle. It employs chemists, botanists, entomologists, microscopists, and veterinary surgeons; and their labors can not but be fruitful of much good. Like it in aim, though working in a different direction, is the younger Fish Commission, which restocks our depleted waters, investigates the habits and food of fishes and the best modes of preventing their extermination, and literally creates new sources of wealth for the people.

Under the Treasury Department, in addition to the Lighthouse Board, are several other bureaus which depend more or less upon science. The Mint and Assay Offices, for example, have much to do with chemistry; and, to a certain extent, with physical problems also. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which manufactures our national bonds and notes, often has need of assistance from scientific experts; and so too have the custom-houses in the settlement of questions relative to certain duties. The Coast and Geodetic Survey, which is almost purely scientific in character, not only maps our coast-line with the utmost accuracy, but also furnishes the primary triangulation of the interior. This triangulation is the basis for all accurate mapping of the several States, and is done by men of the highest scientific training. An error in the boundary-line between two States may throw doubt upon the transfer, taxation, or inheritance of real property; or, by calling in question the jurisdiction of a court over disputed territories, it may defeat the ends of justice. Hitherto, when such doubts have arisen concerning State boundaries, the United States Government, represented by the Coast Survey, has been the arbiter. This survey also controls our magnetic observatories, in which the variations of the needle are recorded, and has custody of the standard weights and measures. The latter duty is one of the utmost importance, and involves the use of the most delicate instruments of precision.

The Geological Survey is under the Interior Department, and has several functions. It determines the geological structure of the country, joining and completing the scattered details of the several State surveys, develops more fully the principles of geologic science; and, from an economic point of view, investigates our mineral resources. Its researches tend to increase the value of public lands, and to render the mineral industries of the nation more surely remunerative, productive, and definite. These industries already yield not far from five hundred millions of dollars annually, and accurate knowledge concerning them is essential to intelligent government. For, one function of government is to levy taxes; taxation, in the last analysis, falls upon the resources of a country, and it can not be wisely adjusted unless the resources are well known. A government can not even be truly economical unless its taxes are laid intelligently. Furthermore, the Geological Survey deals with the topography of the country, and prepares detailed maps of great utility. If such maps had been available during the late civil war, our armies would have been spared many difficulties, and the Government would have avoided much expense.

The Patent-Office also comes under the Interior Department; and here again we find great scientific activity, and a large corps of scientific experts. Their duties appear simple enough when superficially stated, but if studied closely they reveal the unexpected fact that the Government really has become the arbiter in doubtful questions of scientific priority. This is especially true in applied chemistry and electricity, and the controversies over the telephone may be cited as cases in point.

Of the other departments of the executive, little need be said. The Post-Office often needs chemical work on paper, fibers, inks, or other supplies. Questions often arise concerning the electric lighting of public buildings; and even the State Department sometimes has to handle matters of international science, as, for example, in the organization of the late conference relative to a common prime meridian of longitude. The Smithsonian Institution need not be considered, inasmuch as it is maintained by a private endowment, of which the United States is merely the trustee; but the National Museum, which is in charge of the Smithsonian regents, may be cited as the repository of valuable public treasures, and as the place in which the material resources of the country are visibly illustrated.

Enough has been said in the foregoing pages, though very incompletely, to indicate what an amount of scientific investigation and experiment our Government is obliged to require. In addition to these labors of an immediately necessary character, other scientific work is frequently carried on at Government expense, which aims at the discovery of truth for its own sake, apart from its direct applications. For examples, the transit of Venus and solar eclipse expeditions may be named, as well as the work carried on by the Bureau of Ethnology. In the latter organization, by Government aid, valuable data are saved which would otherwise be lost to science; and this is as it should be. Too often, in our busy, every-day life, we forget that there can be no applied science unless there is some pure science to apply; and that the larger problems of science, including much of material value to mankind, are too vast to be grappled by unaided individuals or even by private corporations. They can be solved only by the combined efforts of many trained experts, working with the best facilities and under systematic direction, a state of affairs which can only be brought about by governmental assistance. When that stops, science languishes; and the growth of every industry, public or private, dependent upon science, is checked. Since every modern government is necessarily in competition with other governments, either in the way of increasing its resources or perfecting its means of defense, it follows that aid to science is one of the factors essential to success; and that that nation which fails in far-sighted intelligence will lag behind in material affairs also. Science, both pure and applied, has become a necessity, upon which the welfare and very life of nations must depend. No nation can fairly expect to receive all the benefits of science while giving nothing in return. Even the narrowest utilitarian must see what vast results sprang from the niggardly public grant which rendered possible the first line of the Morse telegraph.

But how shall aid be given? At present, the scientific work of the Government is done in a somewhat scattered way, with more or less overlapping and duplication, and not always under the most favorable circumstances. Some things which ought to be done are neglected, as, for instance, the systematic investigation of pestilences, such as the cholera and yellow fever; others are done twice over by different executive departments acting independently. In the army and navy, apart from the strictly professional researches which the officers are peculiarly fitted to carry on, some scientific work is done in a decidedly amateurish way. Officers are sometimes detailed to make experiments for which they have no special training, and for which civilian experts should be employed; just as if military or naval rank conferred upon its holder an ex officio knowledge, applicable everywhere. A naval officer, staff or line, spends three years at sea. He returns to three years of duty on shore, quite rusty as regards pure science, and is ordered to take charge of some laboratory, or to conduct the preparation of some special scientific report. He goes to work as best he may, and after a while his services begin to have real scientific value. Then he is sent to sea again, and some other lately returned victim takes bis place. His best efforts are wasted, and science suffers; not because of his fault, but in consequence of a bad system. Fortunately, the system affects only a small part of our scientific services; for both army and navy employ specialists in various lines of investigation: as in the Weather Bureau, the Observatory, the Torpedo Station, and the preparation of the Nautical Almanac. Sometimes, however, it is anything but pleasant to see men of science of established reputation subordinated to some unscientific officer under the supercilious title of "civilian assistants." Full credit and responsibility should be given where they properly belong.

There can be no doubt that the present diffused character of the scientific service is due to the circumstances of its growth. Each feature of it has been developed when and where it was needed, without reference to similar work in other departments; hence the lack of system and the tendency to repetition. But the time for a change seems to be approaching; and it is probable that within a few years the strictly scientific work of the Government will be brought together under systematic control and a common head, and possibly in a new executive department. From such an arrangement the exclusively professional scientific investigations of the array and navy might properly be excepted; leaving whatever relates merely to warfare just where it is now. A department such as is here suggested would consolidate all the national surveys, would contain a national laboratory for the chemical and physical work of the Government, and would control the National Observatory, the Weather Service, and other kindred bureaus. It should be as far removed from political control as are the army, the navy, and the judiciary; its head should be a man of high scientific attainments and tried executive capacity; and each of its chiefs of division should have established reputation in the branch of science with which his duties had to deal. In brief, the officers of a Department of Science should have, relatively to their professions, as high standing as is required in the appointment of Justices of the Supreme Court. On that basis only can the scientific work of the Government attain its maximum efficiency. Although good work is done now, the very best is needed; and the standard can not be set too high. If the proposed consolidation of interests should prove to be not feasible, then some form of affiliation, under guidance of an advisory board of commissioners, might be tried. Either plan would insure greater economy and effectiveness than we have at present, and do away with needless duplications. There may be reasonable differences of opinion as to the best methods of organization; but there is no doubt that improvement is needed.

A discussion of the relations between science and politics, however, covers a broader range than the preceding pages have indicated. That a rational government has need of science, is plain enough; but what return influence does science exert upon the governing power? In what way will the subtile spread of scientific conceptions and methods of thinking affect legislation and government generally? So far we have considered only the material side of the question, but it has an intellectual aspect also, and speculation on this topic is too tempting to be wholly avoided.

As nearly as may be estimated, about forty-five per cent of the members of the present Congress have received a more or less complete college training. This proportion is large enough to show a preference on the part of the people for presumably educated representatives; for the ratio of college-bred men to the mass of any ordinary community is vastly smaller. As the poorer and more remote portions of our country become richer and more populous, new colleges will spring up, and the older institutions at the same time are likely to gain in wealth and resources. This condition of affairs will, most probably, lead to an increase in the scholarly element among our legislative bodies; but, be that as it may, another tendency in education more directly concerns our argument. To-day most of our college graduates have received what is known as a "classical" training; in which science, as such, has been allowed to exercise a minimum of influence. But science, nevertheless, is steadily gaining ground; step by step it secures wider recognition and makes a stronger showing in the college courses; and the inevitable result will be that in a few years no man can be considered well educated who has not at least a fair knowledge of some scientific subject. That knowledge, moreover, will have to be gained by modern scientific methods; not from books alone, but by personal observation of things themselves, with the microscope, in the field, or in the college laboratories. In brief, the scholar of the future, whatever else he may have learned, will have received some training in the observation of phenomena at first hand, and in the science of drawing correct conclusions from them. We may, therefore, reasonably expect, as one result of all these tendencies taken together, to see in Congress a steadily increasing number of men acquainted with scientific work, accustomed to scientific modes of thought, and capable of estimating science at its true value, without indifference, and without exaggeration. Such a state of affairs can not fail to exert some influence upon legislation. It will provoke no startling revolutions, and, outwardly, to superficial observers, its effects may be scarcely perceptible; but they will be none the less permanent and real. Both in nature and society the quiet forces are the strongest; and reforms which are brought about almost unconsciously are oftentimes the farthest reaching. The results of a slight change in the mental habits of a Legislature may outweigh the consequences of a war.

Some of the results to be expected from the indicated change are 80 obvious as to need only the barest mention here. Naturally, the scientific work of the Government would receive more careful attention and be more judiciously fostered than it has been hitherto; its growth would be more symmetrical, and it would come more certainly under competent control. The legislation relating to coinage, weights, measures, etc., would become more intelligent, for the law-making power would be more directly familiar with the principles involved, and prejudices would have diminished influence. Furthermore, every legislative problem to which the scientific method of investigation could fairly be applied would have an increased chance of wise, judicious treatment. Of course, I do not mean to imply that miracles would be wrought, transforming human nature; parties and antagonisms would remain pretty much as they are now; only points of view would be different, and some of the stumbling-blocks in the way of prudent legislation would have been removed. An argument in favor of definite improvement does not involve a belief in Utopia.

As an example of the problems capable of scientific treatment, let us consider the tariff question. A man who is actively engaged in commerce, manufactures, agriculture, or mining, will, consciously or unconsciously, regard such a problem from the stand-point of his own industry—judging it according to his own interests, and giving less weight to the interests of others. Whatever benefits him must be good for the country; whatever injures him is surely bad for the country: practical experience and common sense are apparently on his side. Nevertheless, with him, a truly judicial treatment of the subject is so difficult as to be well-nigh impossible; and this statement is borne out by the existing condition of affairs. Every great industry in the country has either been represented in Congress, or has clamored for relief before it, each asking that certain duties should be raised, and others abolished or lowered. The result of this agitation is practically chaos. Some industries are overburdened, and others are unduly favored; inequalities appear in every direction; a fair adjustment seems to be almost unattainable. The tariff, so far, has been framed unsystematically; the treatment of the question has been unscientific; hap-hazard experimenting has wrought unmistakable mischief.

Suppose, now, that the tariff problem were brought for solution before men of scientific training. They would look at it much as they would regard a question in mathematics; as an equation having two sides to be exactly balanced. First, they would group together the objects capable of taxation by import duties, classifying them by a scientific method, and specifying each one with definiteness and precision. The list so formed would next be simplified as much as possible, by striking out repetitions and superfluities, and making as few general headings as would properly cover the ground. Then would follow the consideration of each group by itself, with reference to the amount of revenue needed by the Government, and to the possible prohibitive character of any given rate of duty. Finally, the effects of the tariff upon consumers and producers would be taken into account, and the relations of industries to each other would be carefully studied, so that a duty favorable to one should not be destructive toward another. Thus, step by step, there would be wrought out a tariff system as even and just as possible; not an ideal system by any means, but one moderate and practicable.

Now, although at first sight it would seem to be a simple matter to adjust such a tariff system, something which any steady-going man of average common sense could attend to, a little consideration will show where the value of a scientific education comes in. First, the rigid application of the method proposed is more likely to be carried out by a man of scientific training than by any other, or at least more nearly carried out; for the mode of procedure is just that which best fits the solution of scientific problems. The same mental habits are required in both directions; and, other things being equal, the man best trained in such habits will succeed best in handling either class of questions. Secondly, a tariff most directly affects manufactures; for the articles which it considers are either manufactured or used in manufacturing. Nearly every important manufacture of the present day involves applications of science, which ramify from industry to industry in the most complex way. If, therefore, we wish to study intelligently the relations of manufactures to each other, we must bear in mind the principles of the sciences so applied. Or, to speak more moderately and to the point, a knowledge of science is of direct use in attacking the tariff question. Two illustrations may serve to emphasize this argument:

Sulphuric acid is used in vast quantities in various manufacturing industries, and in this country it is mostly made from Sicilian sulphur. Some years ago a committee of Congress, adjusting a tariff, proposed to tax the sulphur, but to admit the acid duty free; the two things being considered separately, and without thought of their industrial relations to each other. Fortunately, the mistake was pointed out and corrected in the committee-room; but, if the error had become law, the production of sulphuric acid in the United States would have been stopped, and every industry using the acid would have been affected. For instance, the manufacturer of fertilizers would be directly concerned in the consequences of such legislation, and through him it would touch the farmers.

My second illustration is of a different kind. When a tariff is to be framed or modified, the old strife between free-trade and protection is renewed. The advocates of the latter policy urge that in the long run protection, by favoring competition, lowers prices and benefits the consumer; and, for evidence, they cite the present cheapness of iron and steel. A man of scientific education, working upon a tariff scheme, would hear this argument, and ask two questions concerning the case in point: First, is the alleged cheapening of iron real, or only apparent and due to a redistribution of ratios? Secondly, if it is real, how much of it has been caused by tariff legislation, and how much by the improvements which science has made in the production of iron? Upon the answers to these questions his final action will depend; for no intelligent estimate of the relations between the tariff and the iron industry could be framed independently of such answers. The fact that science is all the time modifying industrial processes complicates the issue between different tariff systems to an extent which only a man of scientific knowledge can fairly appreciate.

In 1794, during the Reign of Terror, Lavoisier, the greatest chemist of his time and an able statesman as well, was sentenced to the guillotine. Futile attempts were made to secure him a reprieve, in order that certain important researches, then under way, might be completed; but the appeals in his behalf were met by a brutal reply: "The republic has no need of savants." Such was the spirit of ignorance in politics, as opposed to the spirit of science; and yet the event was so recent in history that another distinguished French chemist, Chevreul, who is still living and at work, was then eight years old. Contemporary with Lavoisier, Franklin and Rumford were eminent alike in science and in statesmanship to a degree equaled in either department by very few; and to-day Lyon Playfair, John Lubbock, and Professor Virchow are conspicuous both as investigators and in political life. In Italy, Quintino Sella has been illustrious as geologist, crystallographer, and statesman; and in our own country several men of science have shown their fitness for public affairs, and their capacity for usefulness as legislators. The "scholar in politics" may be out of place from the partisan's point of view, but not from the true statesman's. A closet scholar, who lives only in books, a visionary theorist, or a mere popular lecturer, who reflects the thoughts of others, may lack the qualities which fit a man for dealing with practical measures; but, for the careful scientific investigator who studies things for what they are, with neither fear nor prejudice, a place is surely open. Every one must admit the need of real knowledge, intelligence, and thoughtfulness in parliaments and congresses; and among the statesmen of the future, side by side with the jurist, the diplomat, and the financier, the man of science will stand as a coadjutor and equal. The dictum of the French judge is already reversed: the republic has need of savants.